Opinion

The Great Debate

A journalistic revolution

By Neal Gabler
October 31, 2013

Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who revealed National Security Agency surveillance leaks from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, dueled this week with former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller over objectivity in journalism. Keller argued that impartiality forces a journalist to test all assumptions. Greenwald, however, countered that impartiality didn’t test assumptions as much as confer authority to each of them. He explained that his new reporting venture, a website funded by eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar, would treat official pronouncements with skepticism.

But while this argument has been taking up a lot of the journalistic oxygen, Paul Thornton, head of the Los Angeles Times letters to the editor section, weighed in recently with a potentially more significant position. Thornton held brief for neither impartiality nor skepticism, but rather for a belief that facts matter — that they can lead to conclusions whether you happen to like those conclusions or not.

Thornton admitted that in his section, he does not run letters claiming there is no human source to global climate warming. Why don’t they run? Because, according to Thornton, “Saying ‘There’s no sign humans have caused climate change’ is not stating an opinion, it’s asserting a factual inaccuracy.”

It should have been the journalistic shot heard ‘round the world, except not many people seem to have heard it. Get this: An editor at a major American newspaper had the temerity to say that on some issues there is such a thing as scientifically verifiable truth. In doing so, he challenged what may be the dominant force in American journalism over the past 30 years — not bias, but that standby of certain university English departments, deconstructionism, which insists there is no such thing as an immutable fact.

An editor championing truth over opinions shouldn’t be an earthquake. But it is. Journalistic extremes have long disregarded fact for ideology. However the bulwarks of American journalism — our mainstream newspapers, websites, magazines, and network news broadcasts — have opted for another principle: Every opinion, no matter how uninformed, deserves equal weight — and journalists dare not come down on one side or the other. It makes balance the new objectivity.

This careful balancing act is now so commonplace that we hardly recognize it. Most anyone watching the evening network news during the government shutdown, for example, saw man-on-the-street interviews of first one person blaming the Republicans for the fiasco (for which they did bear the greatest responsibility), followed by another person blaming the Democrats, followed by a third blaming everyone in government. That has become standard journalistic practice in mainstream media outlets.

A large reason for the “on-the-one-hand,” “on-the-other” reporting has been the success of conservatives in creating the shibboleth of a “liberal” media and then working the refs in that media to bend over backward to prove it isn’t true. No one, not least of all liberal editors, wants to be considered one-sided.

But the roots for this go back more than a century, when the journalistic extremists of the yellow press era, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, controlled American newspapers. Progressives decided to fight back against these press lords’ sensationalistic, propagandistic papers that traded in scandal and used their pages to promote pet causes — most famously, Hearst’s desire to provoke a Spanish-American war. The Progressives called for a new, professionalized journalism, in which reporters wouldn’t be advocates who took sides so much as observers who collected facts.

In theory, it was a great idea to upgrade our reporting and hoist it from the muck. But it came with a flaw. Fact and neutrality do not always cohabitate comfortably. In fact, they seldom do — especially in a highly-charged political environment. Facts have consequences, and they can undermine opinions that have no factual basis. That’s why some journalists ignore them in the first place.

Climate change is a perfect example. You can say that humans aren’t responsible for climate change, as most conservatives do — but you would be factually wrong.

You can say, again as many conservatives have, that Obamacare is a gigantic failure. But you would again be factually wrong too, since it hasn’t been implemented yet. (This isn’t to say that it might not be a failure, only that there are no facts to support its being a failure now.) You could also say that the minimum wage costs jobs, but you would be factually wrong since most major economists have proven otherwise.

As it turned out, it was a very short distance from so-called objectivity, in which one might be forced to take sides by the facts, to balance, in which one avoided taking sides by presenting the arguments for each.

But there was another force at play here, a deep cultural force that wasn’t conservative. In fact, it was left-wing. And it wasn’t denying bias — in fact, it denied that there could be anything that wasn’t tainted with bias.

That force was deconstructionism, and it connected with conservatism and with the old progressive principle of objectivity to create the toothless, spineless journalism we now have.

Deconstructionism is a philosophical idea that denies fact or truth has an absolute meaning. Instead, these draw their meaning from the social and cultural context. Take any book: What does it mean? A deconstructionist might say that the answer is entirely dependent on when it is read, where it is read and who is reading it — which would make the idea of meaning irrelevant. There is no central essence, no hierarchy of value. To put it bluntly: We just made everything up.

This theory became all the rage in university English departments back in the 1970s and 1980s — when the ideas of objective fact and verifiable truth in texts were themselves under left-wing siege as handmaidens of the prevailing bourgeois order.

But whatever impact deconstructionism may have had on university literature departments, its deepest influence may have been on journalism. That is where the idea of “no truth” meshed with the idea of “no advocacy.”

In a world where everything was biased, there was no possible way to pull apart fact from fiction or truth from lie — so journalists just decided to report everything so long as there was no ascribed value to anything. It was a hyper form of democracy — a democracy in which every statement is just as good as any other statement.

So when an editor says that there are facts and there is such a thing as truth, he is pushing back against at least 30 years of journalism and as many years of critical theory. In effect, he is taking on the culture. No one yet seems to have followed Thornton’s lead, but if the news media did, it would reshape our journalistic environment into one in which expertise matters, facts are verifiable, and opinions must be supported in order to be aired. It is easy to blame politics for all our woes. But the blame should rest equally on media outlets that are too afraid to state what the facts make obvious.

We have Thornton to thank for pointing that out.

 

PHOTO (Top): Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the National Security Agency surveillance scandal, uses his laptop in Rio de Janeiro, July 9, 2013. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes

PHOTO (Insert 1): Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres (L) sits next to the incoming COP 17 president Maite Nkoana-Mashabane (R) at the Conference of the Parties (COP17) of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Durban, November 28, 2011. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

PHOTO (Insert 2): William Randolph Hearst. Courtesy of LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/Harris & Ewing

PHOTO (Insert 3): Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher who developed the theory of Deconstruction. WIKIMEDIA

Comments
13 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

It’s nice to think that much of the media is concerned with morals, ethics, truth, and other philosophicals, but I think they all actually take a back seat to ratings, hits, and most importantly advertising. Perhaps it is the divide between the authors and journalist, and those that actually own the outlets. Another way of saying it is I think a significant number of journalist and authors serve a market segment. Not necessarily believing in what they are writing.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive
 

It’s ironic that this fascinating piece appears under the the heading “Opinion”.

Posted by SWilliams | Report as abusive
 

This is an important Idea. People blame Greenwald for being partisan, but it just so happens that the facts are on his side. If the facts fit your outlook, then you are said to be correct, not merely partisan. Fear of being called partisan is in fact a large part of the problem, but the “professional” journalist and more so: the journalism university programs, are to blame.

If the president is lying, it is not partisan to point that fact out, in print. When the pentagon makes a claim that is patently false, it does not do to simply say, “critics say otherwise”. They must be called the liars they are.

Stenographers copy down what people say. Journalists should take what people say, and compare that to relevant objective information. What is being said by our politicians/generals/managers is not objective news. how it correlates to the real world is news.

I also blame the vacuous Critical Theory acolytes or postmodernism and their mendacious quackery. Sokal and Bricmont showed these liars to be what they are: Intellectual Imposters of the first order. The real world exists! I cant believe I have to say that out loud in an age of computers and aeroplanes ….

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive
 

This is sophmoric drivel at its best. If you do not agree with me then your facts are automatically wrong. While journalist are an important venue for delivering information, they often get their “facts” wrong. Lets take the example given, do humans have an impact on climate the answer is yes BUT is it a major impact, that is where the debate lies.

Most of the climate change alarmist have a tendency to neglect the data from the Vostok ice core that was taken at the turn of the century in Antarctica. It is interesting as it shows that CO2 is a resultant and not a caustive of global warming. It will also show that the earth’s warming trend we are in now has lasted approximately 5 thousand years longer then any other warming trend in the last 400,000 years.

I come from the school especially that information, especially from goverment sources or from sources that get their funding from the government should be taken be taken with a very large grain of salt. The main starting point for any journalist should be that they are being lied to and dig deep to find the truth, they should do more than follow the herd and cite the same sources that the other journalists are citing.

Posted by rlm328 | Report as abusive
 

“Get this: An editor at a major American newspaper had the temerity to say that on some issues there is such a thing as scientifically verifiable truth.”

Re: “scientifically verifiable truth”: Every generation of humans seem to believe their scientists are the final end of wisdom and knowledge. Can you imagine how ignorant today’s scientists will appear to scientists 100 years from now? Knowing that we will look like ignorant savages 100 years from now, we should be careful with our labels of “scientific truth”.

Also, I wish the American mainstream media were displaying a “careful balancing act” of objectivity in their reporting. To claim this is laughable. Does anyone other than the author, left or right, really believe this? I think you and I are living on different planets.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive
 

That goes both ways

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive
 

@sarkozyrocks,
If not scientifically verifiable truth (or which there are some, not everything of course), then what standard do you propose we follow to know what is true? I say use the best information we can now, which is science!

We have only done science for a few hundred years in total, and it builds on itself. Rarely does the apple cart get overturned in favour of radically new ideas. It happened with Newton, Darwin, Einstein … and not much else. For the newspaper editor, everything might as well be cast in stone, as new discoveries are not going to upset things that affect our lives… but rather obscure facts about the nature of matter, etc that do not matter to most humans, most of the time. If the president lies, we have enough of a grasp of reality (the truth) to say so, and it is science that almost exclusively is the deciding factor in these type of decisions.

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive
 

Actually this goes back to the origins of sophistry.

Posted by Eideard | Report as abusive
 

Yes, it is an idea from the axial period. And Gabler’s skin-deep analysis of plurality, uncertainty, and democratic temperament is a joke next to Plato’s analysis from 400 B.C. (or so), let alone modern debate on epistemology. Gabler’s an unintended example of the problem, rather than a compass pointing toward any solution.

Posted by benfct | Report as abusive
 

A great big duh!

Posted by Newsrocket | Report as abusive
 

With any story, there is a story line. A beginning, a middle and an end. Any reporter must ground the “development” in a definition of the situation and how “new elements” enter the stage and play out. The final outcome of the interactive dynamic is interpreted through the lens of politics, economics, sociology and with a sense of what’s next. Beyond that is what normally appears in the New Yorker Magazine.

Posted by Newsrocket | Report as abusive
 

The present day version of “there is no possible way to pull apart fact from fiction or truth from lie…”, shows up in much of the information and emails I receive from conservative friends. In many cases 99% of the information provided is not factual. However, when called on the facts, their response is that since 1% is true, there is no reason to be concerned about correcting the 99% that is not true. My conservative friends have been “foxxilized”, they do not care whether something is factual, as long as, it supports their view.

Posted by jft3 | Report as abusive
 

according to the right, it seems science has a liberal bias. facts consist of whatever supports the movement. according to this catechism, the left is based on lies; everything is political and indeed, facts and science are usually twisted tellings that fit the agenda of the cosmopolitans among us.

to be sure, the far left is equally guilty of similar intellectual dishonesty. but comparing the numbers of the far left to the radical right in america today is like comparing the numbers of whacked out charedi to the number of radical muslims. the former pales in comparison.

given the deep divide in american society and the vitriolic distrust from one side of the chasm to the other, there can be no easy resolution. paul thornton’s wisdom can only be construed as more liberal bias by those who insist that facts are largely subjective in nature. it is little wonder his statement has been drowned in indifference.

Posted by rehoneyman | Report as abusive
 

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